How many people can you fit in a mini-bus with 16 seats? If you’re in Laos, the correct answer is 2 in the front and 20 in the back, plus 16 backpacks, plus a whole load of groceries on the roof. I’m semi-disappointed that there were no livestock. What with our recent long tail escapades, it seems that fate is determined to see us push the boundaries of what passenger loads (not-so) modern engineering can handle.
Laos buses are magical contraptions, combining the space distorting capabilities of the Tardis and Mary Poppins’ carpet bag to store more than you thought physically possible, with a cunning optical illusion that makes it seem much, much smaller inside than it does from the outside.
With the aid of a couple of foldaway seats that made some lucky passengers (myself included) feel as though they were on the special bus, we crammed so much into the vehicle that it barely made it up the steep mountain roads on the way to Luang Namtha. We were all very friendly by the end of it.
Before we got that far though, there was the small matter of immigration.
Travelling from Chiang Rai this morning, we moved north to Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border. At two hours, it was fairly peaceful if slightly non-eventful. The scenery gradually became more and more unspoilt with the view from the window a continuous rearrangement of the same few elements, as if a lazy cartoonist was reusing visual components. Thatched shacks and tin-roof lean-tos in fields of rice and bananas, a vivid neon green against pale mountains that faded into a hazy sky. The only particularly memorable village had market day on (I’m convinced it’s always market day somewhere in Thailand) and seemed to be named as if for the cry of an Irishman resisting restrictions to dubious herbal remedies: (You’ll nae) Ban Mae Bong.
At the river border of Chiang Khong, we exchanged some money for Laos Kip – yes, you have to haggle even the exchange rate of currencies here, and departed Thailand by boat. Visa Upon Arrival greeted us, and seeing as we had just arrived and were in need of visas, it was to there we proceeded. If I hadn’t known Laos was a communist socialist republic (and until a few weeks ago, I didn’t), I could have guessed by the lack of alacrity with which our visa application was processed. Four separate people handled the business of putting a visa sticker in our passports, taking around 30 minutes to complete the process. 28 of those minutes involved having a chat, while our documents lay sitting in the middle of the table between them. Ah well, at least they were laughing and joking. When completed, they had apparently forgotten which passports were ours, bringing a bunch over to the window and showing each one to us until we confirmed our own. I could have been Norwegian if I’d acted quickly enough. We Caucasians do all look the same after all.
I’m very glad that we hadn’t joined the crowds in making the first run across the river at 8am. I imagine disorganised chaos, and passports offered to the highest bidder. Two years in jail if we lose our departure card before we depart the country, apparently. I don’t quite believe it, but I’m still stapling it into my passport. Pascal’s Wager and all that.
With that over and done with, we climbed aboard the infinite space machine and set off for Luang Namtha.
To say that the first half of our trip took place on a road would be to stretch the definition to breaking point. It would in fact be a flat out lie. Certainly flatter than the dirt track we initially negotiated, which was scarred and pitted enough to suggest that it had contracted a particularly bad case of acne. To make matters worse, we passed dozens of Tyco Asphalt trucks along the way, each of which stubbornly refused to lighten their load even a little to even things out.
2 hours in we stopped for a bathroom break, the bathroom being the countryside and some conveniently located banana plants. The girls disappeared behind a mound of earth and we thought it prudent to take the American military’s approach to difficult conversations: We didn’t ask, they didn’t tell.
Then, wonder of wonders, we came upon black gold. Tarmac that is, not oil, which is bizarrely almost as expensive here and in Thailand as it is in Australia. At getting up to $1 / litre, I don’t understand how their economies can bear the cost and why based on that food and manufactured goods aren’t more expensive too. An economist could probably answer that for me.
With a new, and it has to be said, excellent surface beneath us, we picked up the pace somewhat, a double edged sword as we also entered some more mountainous terrain with sheer drops on one side or the other. In parts, the road barely clung to the side of a mountain and the terraced clay mountainside threatened to rain debris down on us given the slightest jolt.
With the entire journey covering 190km, we completed it in a very reasonable 4 hours, arriving at Luang Namtha just after 4pm. We all fairly exploded out of the doors and what with our dishevelled looks and bright backpacks lying around, it looked as though the bus had thrown us up all over the floor through overexertion.
Tomorrow, we do the same again! Same same but different though, as we take a mini-van and bus further east for about 7 hours. Luang Namtha itself is really nothing more than a road with some guesthouses on it, but offers enough trekking and outdoor activities that I’m a bit sad we’re not staying longer. It certainly is remote – you can even see stars! Nevertheless, one more day of travel and we’ll rest for a bit in Nong Khiaw, where we can hopefully take our time to see more of the surroundings.
Finally, if you’re passing though Luang Namtha (not that you would – you have to really try to get here), you could do far far worse than stay at the lovely Toulasith Guesthouse, which offers comfortable double rooms, free Wi-Fi and hot private baths for about $12.